Sex at the Margins began 25 years ago in Latin America, when everyone I knew was talking about going to work in richer countries. We all knew people who had done it without applying for visas that would never be granted. If you were a woman doing it the underground way, you had two choices upon arriving: work as a live-in maid or sell sex. Some women dismissed out of hand the degradation of being a maid, others felt that way about being a prostitute. It was a matter of preference.
Then European NGOs began campaigns against migrant women selling sex, and I wondered: did they not know how awful being a maid could be, how much work it is for how little money? Why did they want women to stay at home if they were willing to take risks to get ahead? What was so awful about prostitution?
This was before trafficking became a daily headline item, before all informal travel agents were denominated criminals. When I began my observations, the mainstream idea of women who sell sex was at a moment of change; long considered seductive miscreants they were now being called victims. The focus of my research was on middle-class actors who felt it their duty to help these women. I later wrote:
…the theorising, with its silences and fixations, can be understood as the desire first to know and then to control people whose activities are considered deviant. The focus I bring to this study belongs to a postcolonial framework that questions missions to help non-Europeans, particularly the maternalistic tradition – even when it is called feminist – to rescue non-European and poorer women.
Sex at the Margins, p. 7
The full title, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, names policy-issues that remain dysfunctional in most countries: irregular travel to work (economic migration) and commercial sex. Migrants everywhere, women as well as men, often opt for riskier jobs. Since life in the informal economy means no citizenship rights, many decide they might as well make more money, and sex work is the best-paying option for women.
But the margins in this book are occupied not only by migrants but people who haven’t travelled at all. Before the Enlightenment, prostitutes were not excluded from the communities they worked in. But with the Rise of the Social, particular bourgeois figures were identified as having a mission to raise the poor, prostitutes among them. I could find no intrinsic reason to exclude selling sex from the category of service work or to assume domestic labour is more dignified than sexual. Live-in maids generally work in feudal conditions yet cause no commotion like that generated by sex workers.
Sex at the Margins doesn’t toe a particular theoretical line. I used the anthropological method of Studying Up and the theory of Governmentality to look at privileged social actors. The book has chapters analysing ideas about migration and travel, service labour and the history of prostitution. The field work was carried out in Spain amongst a variety of middle-class workers in NGOs and helping projects. As I said in Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, my ideas don’t boil down to bullet points.
When the book was released in 2007 I was embroiled in my own migration problems. There was no book-launch. Then, as I was bouncing from country to country, requests for interviews and information began to trickle in, and I discovered that many others wondered: who were these moral entrepreneurs who professed to Know Best how we all should live?
Now the book is ten years old and, I’m sorry to say, more relevant than ever. What I named the Rescue Industry – everyone on missions to save women from selling sex – has grown and proliferated in ways I could never have imagined. Abolitionists and other would-be helpers largely continue to refuse to accept what women say they want to do, seeming to prefer to believe them helpless and innocent – though the current word is vulnerable.
Sex at the Margins has been assigned in uncountable university classes. Fans write thanking me above all for explaining what’s wrong with the trend to disqualify what subjects themselves say. Rescuers call it ‘giving voice to the voiceless’, meaning less-advantaged women don’t know what they are doing and need to be spoken for. At the same time, the voices of women able to tweet or buy their own air tickets are dismissed as an immaterial elite. Through government and police programmes and grantmaking, the Rescue Industry expands every day around the world.
Sex at the Margins is available in all formats, including audiobook.